A refuge. A place for growth and activism. A city with Black roots.
Those are just a few of the ways that women poets of color describe Ypsilanti in a new zine called "Ypsi On My Mind," which is set to be published and distributed for free across the community in the coming weeks.
The zine is a project of an Ypsilanti-based poetry collective organized by women of color called Untold Stories of Liberation and Love
. The core group of five women came together and wrote a grant to host a series of workshops
in 2019 that culminated in the publication of an anthology
called "Love and Other Futures" in fall of 2019. Grant funds were awarded by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation
. The zine will be designed by Ypsi-based graphic artist Akanni Hayes
The women in the collective had funding and planned to continue to run in-person workshops, but the COVID-19 pandemic required a change in plans that still helped local women of color feel supported in writing poetry. The core group of organizers set up a website, started a podcast, posted weekly prompts, and posted the resulting poems under the heading "Poetry in a Time of Virus."
One of the five Untold Stories founders, Maria Ibarra-Frayre, says organizers didn't want to run workshops on Zoom because "so many of our participants were already spending so much time virtually."
"We felt like that wasn't going to have the same restorative and joyful feel" as the in-person workshops, Ibarra-Frayre says.
Another Untold Stories founder, Desirae Simmons, says the website was meant to be a resource for poets in the community, but interacting with others there was "really powerful" for her as well.
"I didn't realize how much I needed that," Simmons says. "Because of all that was happening during that time in 2020, with the pandemic and also the police murders of Black folks and everything that was happening last summer, it was great to have that platform."
The website prompts and the new podcast were popular additions to the collective's offerings. However, organizers still had grant funding to use and they wanted to find other ways to support local poets, both mentally and financially.
"It became clear we had to switch to another way to support local women poets of color," says Untold Stories co-founder Julie Quiroz. "Even if we couldn't reach them physically, we could do our own form of poetic stimulus and support people materially and remind them that we love them and value them. And when we can all be together again, we will."
Via the website and the email list for participants, the group put out a call for up to 30 poems that centered on Ypsilanti. Because Untold Stories had grant funding that wouldn't be used for workshops, organizers initially offered $250 for each poem chosen. But because only about 20 poems were chosen, Quiroz says the featured poets may end up being paid closer to $500.
Poet Violeta Donawa's piece "An Ode to Complex Movement" was selected to appear in the zine. She is originally from Detroit but moved to Ypsilanti Township about three years ago. At first, she wondered if she should participate in the project since she was such a new transplant.
"I was undecided about submitting a poem as a Detroiter who has only recently moved to Ypsi but who has lived in Lansing, Brazil, and Angola," Donawa says. "When I thought a little harder about it, I thought maybe a poem could be an exploration of that [theme]."
Her poem opens with lines exploring the subject of people's relationship to place: "A housemate in Detroit / From Pennsylvania / Once told me that she had a polyamorous relationship to place / That multiple cities called to her that she all loved equally but different."
Donawa says she began writing poetry in grade school, but recently she's been bogged down in her practice as a clinical therapist. She says she was glad for a prompt to begin writing poetry again.
Another poet who contributed to the zine is Erica Edwards. Edwards had participated in the very first Untold Stories workshop and stayed in touch with the other women in the poetry collective in the months afterward. She says writing poetry with other women online was helpful, "especially during the first couple months of the pandemic."
"Every day there was this onslaught of, 'What the hell is going on?'" she says. "It felt crazy and overwhelming, and meanwhile people were trying to pretend like it was business as usual, except online. It was nice to have time to process how intense that experience was."
Additionally, Edwards had recently found out she was going to have another child.
"I was really big and pregnant when the world shut down. I was worried about what it would be like to have a baby in the middle of all this," she says.
The theme of motherhood shines through in her poem, "The Refuge." Edwards was born in Detroit, but her parents sent her to live with a family friend in Pittsfield Township so she could attend better schools than her family had access to in Detroit. Even though she spent most of her childhood years in and around Ypsilanti, she says she often felt like "a bit of an outsider."
"This place is complicated for me. My husband and I just bought a house here, but I think I always sort of resisted connecting to Ypsi," Edwards says. "I knew that my parents were doing what they perceived they had to do to get me a good education. So I felt like an outsider, but when I set down roots here myself, I started to feel increasingly connected to the community here. When I saw the call for poetry, I knew that's what I had to write about."
Her poem contains the lines: "This place is the refuge / Where with faith / A grieving teenager sent her baby girl / Lovingly down river / To rescue her from the 1980s."
Ibarra-Frayre says the women in the poetry collective have always found it important to compensate participants for their time, first through stipends to workshop participants, and now through an honorarium for publication in the zine.
"Often women's work is not appreciated, and art and poetry is not something that our community or society has valued historically in a way I think they deserved to be," she says. "We're proud to be able to offer financial compensation to women submitting poems and sharing their work with us."
Once the zine is published, it will be distributed around town, partly through the efforts of the poets featured in the zine. Simmons says the group is planning an art installation project to highlight the poems, and the zines will be available during a launch event sometime later this spring. The poems will also be published on the Untold Stories website
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.